In 2006, Activision acquired game peripheral manufacturer RedOctane and as a result, the rights to the ‘Guitar Hero’ game series. Whether or not this would be a productive move was to be seen. A few months later, Harmonix, the game developer of ‘Guitar Hero’, was acquired by MTV Networks. Neversoft took over development for ‘Guitar Hero III’ at Activision and the Harmonix developers were able to focus on new exciting projects with expanded access to music licensing opportunities through MTV and Viacom. One of these acquisitions made something revolutionary and one led to the dilution of a once-in-a-lifetime brand, guess which?
Activision killed the ‘Guitar Hero’ brand. With the release of ‘Guitar Hero III’, Activision made it clear they were interested in expanding the reach of the franchise by any means necessary. This meant they were going to make it available on every platform possible, whether or not it made any sense. The result? Guitar Hero on a keychain, Guitar Hero for BlackBerry, Guitar Hero for the Nintendo DS, and more. By not innovating on the flagship product itself, Activision made it clear they were not committed to creating a compelling product that redefined the music space; just market penetration. The 100,000,000 USD acquisition was a boon for the shareholders of ATVI but a net loss for the consumer and game lover.
Harmonix, free to explore the music game genre which they made viable, churned out ‘Rock Band’. This new game title changed the what the public imagined a simple rhythm game could be by incorporating drums, vocals into the usual plastic guitar fare. Innovative hardware is not the only reason it has been so successful; Harmonix and MTV made downloadable tracks a priority and as a result, new songs are released on a weekly basis. As of the publishing of this article, 100 tracks are available for download by Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 users and over 10,000,000 songs have been purchased. Downloadable content was not new; Xbox Live users were familiar with map-packs and additional content game publishers made available for sale. PSN on Playstation 3 allows for similar functionality. ‘Rock Band’ as a game proved without a doubt that game developers had the opportunity to reach the consumer after the point of sale with compelling content and interactivity. Harmonix operates a user forum and a comprehensive site for players to explore and extend their game experience. At every point where Activision failed to capitalize on the brand they acquires, Harmonix nailed it. This is why ‘Rock Band’ will be the game title that reigns supreme: extensible, social, innovative.
The ‘Guitar Hero’ brand is certainly not dead, but is nowhere near as powerful as it once was due to the systematic dilution by Activision. Executives are Activision have indicated that the next iteration of the ‘Guitar Hero’ will most likely feature drums and a microphone; essentially making it a ‘Rock Band’ knock-off. That’s not quite ‘Guitar Hero’ anymore now is it?
Personally, I’m waiting for the ‘Guitar Hero MMORPG for Nokia N-GAGE’ to be released…